A Political Storm: Hurricane Ida’s Impact On American Politics
On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana and promptly made history as one of the most damaging and destructive hurricanes in American history (second only, of course, to Katrina). Hurricane Ida transpired during the age of social media, an era in which events can be recorded, posted, and interpreted by the public. Thus, haunting imagery of a food-delivery driver stumbling through hip-high water with his delivery bags in hand or of dark waters ferociously rushing through a New York City subway station flooded the Internet, provoking fear and anger to new levels.
Footage like this often acts as political kindling in America, and this time was no different. For most on the left, Ida is proof that climate change is worsening storms that American infrastructure won’t be able to withstand; for many on the right, claims that global warming caused Hurricane Ida are considered shameless attempts to pour more funds into the bipartisanship infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate.
Within Congress, progressive politicians especially latched on to Ida, not as a singular failure of emergency response or shoddy infrastructure like Katrina, but as a dark beacon of the future to come. The aforementioned videos of watery destruction, of people trying to exist normally alongside floods of almost biblical proportions, were used by countless politicians and citizens alike to raise awareness of catastrophic climate change.
The politicization of natural disasters in the United States, while perhaps more prevalent now due to the power of social media, is certainly not new. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, at least 1200 people were killed and the cost for property damage resided somewhere around $100 billion. Recorded news footage had a substantial role in creating Katrina’s infamous legacy, as videos of people pleading for aid in the Superdome and desperately waving from the rooftops of their flooded homes caused national uproar.
The recovery efforts were also plagued by unstable communication between political leaders, purported cronyism, and partisan squabbles over how much aid money Congress should allocate to New Orleans in the storm's aftermath. Many politicians, particularly President George Bush, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and FEMA director Michael Brown, had their reputations irreparably tarnished by their mishandling or lack of expertise regarding the disaster. Bush’s popularity especially plummeted due to his approach to the storm: critics latched onto him ignoring the damage for several days, releasing pictures of himself safely gazing at the wreckage from his private plane, and being lampooned by Kanye West who claimed on national television that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Hurricane Katrina also spawned partisan Congressional tension, highly reminiscent of the discord between Congressional caucuses regarding Ida, that revolved around dispensing federal recovery funds for Louisiana. In fact, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco even said “If I had known how political this White House was going to be, I might have considered becoming a Republican just to lower the temperature so that I could get all that money (for rebuilding) up front.”
While Hurricane Katrina certainly had the most specific and disastrous political ramifications of almost any American natural disaster in history, the response to Hurricane Ida is profound in its own way. There are no longer just one or two politicians to blame, no obvious failure like levees breaking, no clear-cut partisan divides regarding environmental issues or aid spending. Instead, Hurricane Ida is the latest example of the new political spectrum regarding natural disasters in America: despair and urgent calls to action from progressives, methodical expressions of sympathy from moderates, disgruntled appeals to remain apolitical and frugal from conservatives. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was an anomaly in scale and controversy; in 2021, Hurricane Ida is yet another storm in a long list, considered so normal that it’s almost surreal.
Although the spectrum of environmental political response is usually fairly predictable, there is more blurring on issues like Ida than most (hence why it is a spectrum, not a divide). The dial shifted especially for some conservative politicians because it was their own districts that got pummeled by Ida; the Louisiana GOP in particular begged Congress to pass an emergency spending bill or attach one to the upcoming infrastructure and budget bills to help rebuild their homes, and many Republican Senators also took up their plea. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is one such politician who conjured up devastating memories of Hurricane Ida in order to back up his newfound support for the bill, telling his naysaying colleagues to “...go down to Lafourche and Terrebonne … to people who will not have electricity back until September 29th and tell them you’re going to vote against a bill….which will build levees and protect Louisiana and other states from natural disasters, go to those parishes and tell them whatever cockamamie reason you have to vote no.” Meanwhile, many moderate Democratic politicians— Senator Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) come to mind—also broke with their party, but this switch came instead from their lack of support for these infrastructure and budget bills. Although these bills place a high priority on environmental issues, which is usually an easy “yea” vote for Democrat politicians, moderates take issue with the $1 trillion and $3.5 trillion price tags the bills entail. And galvanized by the horrors of Ida, progressives are throwing another wrench into the passing of these bills. Members of the Progressive Caucus such as Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) refused to lend support to or vote for the infrastructure bill until it allocated more funds towards climate change solutions, causing the harried Democratic leadership to delay the planned October 1 vote until they could guarantee support.
Response to Katrina was pithy, sharp, incisive, personal. The looming specter of climate change was on few non-academic minds in 2005, and all the blame could be placed on a weak federal response and missteps by specific politicians. But in 2021,conservatives are seeing the devastating, destabilizing effect that rising sea water and warmer oceans will have on their southern districts. As more and more climate-related issues are arising, Ida being a chief one among them, moderates are seeing the costs rise as well, tempting them to ignore the storms and instead focus on curbing what they see as excessive, unsustainable federal spending. And progressives are desperately scheming to include more green provisions in bills, digging their heels in to force Congress to take concrete, bold climate action. There is no one bad guy anymore, like with Katrina; every person on the planet contributes to climate change in some way or another. The political response to storms is now, and will likely continue to be, frayed, conflicting, nebulous. The political opera regarding the planet is one that has been ongoing for several years and will continue for several more; Hurricane Ida is just one of the many storms that will shift and complicate both American media and politics for generations to come.